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John D. Caton

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a two‑story rectangular brick house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 40° and two chimneys; it is partly overgrown with roses or ivy. The front door is arched with a fanlight. It is the Hegeler House in La Salle, Illinois.]

Edward C. Hegeler House, La Salle, Built 1874.

 p168  Above the River

After it was built almost three quarters of a century ago, the impressive Hegeler mansion, standing like a baronial castle on a bluff above the rooftops of La Salle, was an object of awe to the Illinois River steamboat men of the 1870's and 1880's.

Today, with its stone walls faded by age and its environ crowded out by later houses, this mansion arouses the curiosity of a new generation of river men — the men who operate the modern, Diesel-engined towboats. What they observe is one of La Salle's outstanding residential landmarks, a landmark that once was known throughout the country as the seat of a new religious movement.

This tall, three‑story stone dwelling, with its French-style mansard roof and mansarded cupola standing out against the sky, was built in 1874 by Edward C. Hegeler, who at that time was one of the leading industrialists of America and La Salle's most prominent citizen.

Thirteen years after the completion of his residence Hegeler established the Open Court Publishing Company for the dissemination of his scientific-religious beliefs. From the first floor of his La Salle mansion went out tracts, books, and magazines, including The Monist, to all parts of the country and even to foreign lands.

Before erecting his house, however, Hegeler had established himself as one of the builders of La Salle. This he did by founding, in association with another man, the Matthiessen & Hegeler Zinc Company, which in time became one of the largest zinc works in America and La Salle's principal industry. The great plant, with its many buildings, yards, and smoking stacks, lies just below the bluff on which stands the mansion.

During the middle 1850's Hegeler and a companion, Frederick W. Matthiessen, had come west from Pennsylvania in search of a suitable zinc-works site. Both were young mining engineers. They found what they wanted at La Salle, then experiencing a boom as a shipping point on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which connected Chicago with the Illinois River at Peru. This factor, as well as the nearness of coal mines and the presence of zinc ore at Galena, caused them, in 1858, to establish their works at La Salle.

The firm grew rapidly. We are told that Hegeler and Matthiessen "carried on investigations and experiments leading to important discoveries which were embodied in patents on inventions, taken out jointly by both." The partners acquired coal mines, became financially interested in railroads, and began the manufacture of sulphuric acid.

 p169  Having become one of the wealthiest men in northern Illinois, Hegeler decided to erect a mansion suitable to his station. The same decision was reached by Frederick Matthiessen, and when the two houses were completed they won widespread admiration for their size and magnificence. About this time Matthiessen established the Western Clock Manufacturing Company and the La Salle Tool Company. Among his best-known philanthropies was his development of Deer Park, near La Salle. This property of 174.6 acres was given to the state of Illinois by the Matthiessen family in 1944. It is known as the Matthiessen State Park Nature Area.

Established in their spacious residence on the bluff above La Salle, Mr. & Mrs. Hegeler reared their children, entertained some of the leading men and women of the state, and reigned as one of the first  p170 families of La Salle. Two sons — Julius and Herman — established a second zinc smelter at Danville. This and the one at La Salle were the outstanding plants of their kind in America. Julius Hegeler also became a well-known Danville civic leader.

In its heyday the Hegeler abode was one of the show places of the Illinois River Valley. The house stood in the center of an estate occupying an entire city block. Fine shade trees spread their branches over well-kept lawns. Bubbling fountains, flower gardens, paths, and driveways added to the attractiveness of the place. From their small balcony porches or bay windows the Hegelers could see the broad, rolling surface of the Illinois River.

As he advanced in years Hegeler became more and more interested in religious and scientific problems. He was naturally of a scholarly disposition, and the mansion library was his favorite haunt. He met Dr. Paul Carus, a scholar and writer with similar views. The Open Court Publishing Company was established, with Dr. Carus, who had become Hegeler's son-in‑law, as its head. Through this company the two men propounded their religious views.

From a biographical sketch of Hegeler in the Official Reference Book of the Press Club of Chicago (the zinc magnate having been a member of this club) we learn that the Open Court Publishing Company was founded for the purpose of bringing about "the free and full discussion of religious and psychological questions on the principle that the scientific world conception should be applied to religion. Mr. Hegeler believed in science, but he wished to preserve the religious spirit with all its serious endeavor, and in this sense he pleaded for the establishment of a religion of science and a science of religion."

From the La Salle mansion, with the assistance of a corps of editorial workers, translators, and printers, Hegeler sent out tracts, booklets, and magazines advancing his philosophical and religious beliefs. It is said that one of the reasons for this activity was to counteract the agnostic utterances of Colonel Robert Ingersoll, who lived in near-by Peoria.

Edward Hegeler died in 1910 at the age of seventy-five.

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Page updated: 11 Dec 07